Friday, June 13

First Samuel 30: David and his men, not yet informed about the outcome of the Battle of Mount Gilboah, return to their earlier base on the southeastern edge of Philistine territory. They arrive on the third day.

This story also serves the apologetic purpose of putting a great distance between David and the death of Saul. David could never be blamed for it, because he was far away.

David’s company discovers that the Amalekites, in their absence, have attacked and destroyed Ziklag, where they had left their families and property.

Since Ziklag was taken in the absence of David’s band, there was no real battle. Consequently, there were no deaths in the attack; all the prisoners are still alive. The prisoners have become—like Joseph of old—prisoners of Amalekite slave-traders.

As for David, he genuinely fears that his men, discovering that their families have been abducted, are going to take some revenge of him; it was his idea, after all, to be away from Ziklag these past several days. The author’s inclusion of this detail of David’s fear indicates how precarious his situation has been over the past fourteen months. His handful of followers has given up a lot on his behalf. They are desperate men, and they have their limits. David fears those limits may have been trespassed by this recent catastrophe at Ziklag. The author comments on David’s spiritual attitude in this crisis: “David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”

In David’s consultation with the priestly oracular ministry, there is a clear contrast between him and Saul. Whereas the latter has just been reduced to seeking counsel from a dark source, David has the advantage of a priest, Abiathar, in his camp, and from this priest he seeks guidance in the present calamity. Abiathar reassures him.

On their way to rescue their families, David and his men find an abandoned Egyptian, who provides information helpful to their cause. Using this information, they quickly discover the raiders, spread out and insouciant to danger. Since four hundred of them will escape David’s surprise attack, their number is apparently large. Gorging themselves with food, however, and having too much to drink, they are no match for David’s enraged band descending on their camp without warning.

The booty taken by David includes not only the spoils absconded from Ziklag but also the material the raiders have taken from other adventures in the region. All of this material belongs to the Israelites as the rewards of war.

Those who have accompanied David all the way, however, are reluctant to share the booty with the exhausted men who stayed behind. David, who perceives that the recent success represents, not simply human effort, but the generosity of God—what the Lord has given us—insists on a corresponding generosity among his men.

In such a adjudication, the reader perceives that David is more than a brave and skilful warrior; he is also the sort of humane leader Israel will now need, for Saul (as we will presently see) has just perished on a battlefield further north.

Saturday, June 14

First Samuel 31: The narrator now turns north and east, to Mount Gilboah, where the Philistines are engaged in a great victory over the forces of Saul.

The Battle of Mount Gilboah actually takes place somewhat northwest of the mount itself, in the Valley of Jezreel, where the Philistine chariots enjoy the advantage of a flat terrain. The Israelites, overcome by these forces, flee to Mount Gilboah, where fighting in a chariot is more difficult. The chariots, therefore, do not pursue them. Instead, the Philistines advance their archers to harass the fleeing Israelites. In the course of this archery attack, Jonathan and his brothers are slain.

As for Saul, the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) text says that he “was overcome with fear.” Some textual historians, nonetheless, amend that text to read, “badly wounded.” The present writer is less than persuaded by this emendation, because a badly wounded man would not likely be strong enough to throw himself on his sword. In any case, Saul commits suicide, a thing fairly rare in Holy Scripture (cf. 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18; Matthew 25:7).

The defeat of Saul’s army leads to a general panic in the neighboring vicinity, and the eastward flight of whole populations leaves many cities and villages uninhabited. The Philistines quickly seize and occupy those places. Thus, Philistine occupation effectively cuts a great swath through Israelite territory—west to east—so that the northern tribes are cut off from Judah and Benjamin in the south. This practical estrangement of the northern and the southern tribes will not be resolved until much later in the story, when the greatly weakened house of Saul will lost popular credibility and the political support of Abner.

As a sign of Israel’s total humiliation, Saul’s decapitated body is impaled on the wall of Bethshan, roughly eleven miles southwest of Mount Gilboah. This town, near the Jordan, is twelve miles west of Jabesh Gilead on the east side of the river. The citizens of Jabesh, learning of the fate of Saul, and remembering how he relieved the military siege of their city twenty years earlier (1 Samuel 11), bravely effect a night raid across the Jordan to retrieve the corpses of Saul and his sons. The bodies are burned, perhaps because they have already begun to decay.

As the citizens of Jabesh had endured that siege for seven days, so now they fast for seven days to mourn the loss of their erstwhile deliverer.

Although there is no narrative break between this story and the first chapter of Second Samuel, the editors and copyists of the Greek (Septuagint) translation—forced by the physical volume of the work to split it into two scrolls—discerned a certain propriety in dividing it at the end of the Battle of Mount Gilboah. The death of Saul, Israel’s first king, has removed the major obstacle to David’s ascension to the throne. The Bible’s next page truly is a new leaf.

Sunday, June 15

2 Samuel 1: Some days after David’s return to the camp at Ziklag, there comes a straggler from Saul’s army, perhaps an Amalekite mercenary. He presents David with part of Saul’s royal raiment, and he boasts of having given the dying Saul the coup de grace on Mount Gilboah. He evidently expects David to welcome him with open arms.

David, however, having just pursued and defeated a band of treacherous Amalekites, is in no mood to suffer a dubious story from yet another one. The man’s account sounds implausible from his first words; he claims, “I happened by chance to be on Mount Gilboa.” He happened to be on Mount Gilboah?! David senses duplicity here, and narrows to two his responsive options: Either this Amalekite is simply a scavenger who stumbled on the corpse of Saul before the Philistines found it, or he is what he claims to be—the very killer of Saul. David goes with option number two. The reader, who already knows how Saul died, perceives the irony that this Amalekite is lying his way to a death sentence. (No reader of Samuel, up to this point, has yet discovered much reason to look on Amalekites with favor!)

David is not favorably impressed. If this Amalekite had time and opportunity to abscond with Saul’s crown and bracelet, why did he not remove Saul’s body and save it from desecration? Instead—according to the man’s own account—he presumed to lay a violent hand on the Lord’s anointed, a thing David has several times refrained from doing. Indeed, a man like this would feel free to kill any king, including David himself. Such a one has forfeited his own life, as far as David is concerned.

David has, in addition, lost his best friend—Jonathan. Doubtless this is the reason why David’s poetic lament on the battle of Mount Gilboah (verses 19-27)—in addition to the epic theme of its historical reference—takes on a great personal pathos. This chant opens for the reader a window into the soul of David.

Also, this is one of the few places where Holy Scripture explicitly names an earlier literary source—The Book of Jasher, which was perhaps an anthology of martial poetry. It is quoted also in Joshua 10:12-13.

In days gone by, David knew, Israelite maidens had danced when “Saul killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Let not the Philistine maidens similarly rejoice over the tragic fall of Saul:

Tell it not in Gath,

Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,

Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

David, aware that he had been a source of alienation between Jonathan and Saul, seems to find peace in the thought that in death, at least, the father and son were once again united.

Monday, June 16

2 Samuel 2: This chapter breaks into three parts: David’s accession to authority over the tribe of Judah in the south, Ishbosheth’s succession to the throne of Saul in the north, and the rivalry between these two thrones during the period after the Battle of Mount Gilboah.

In the first section (verses 1-7), David abandons Philistine service and leaves Ziklag. Then, following oracular counsel (presumably given through the ministry of Abiathar, the priest who has accompanied him since First Kings 22), he and his band settle in and around the southern city of Hebron. When the leaders of the tribe of Judah choose him as their king, this city becomes his capital. There is no evidence that the Philistines look askance at this; both they and David, after all, appear to be allied against the house of Saul.

One of David’s first actions is to dispatch a message to the citizens of Jabesh Gilead, praising their care for the body of Saul. This action of David is a good political move, as well, ingratiating him with an Israelite city on the other side of the Jordan. In his message, David is careful to mention that he has become king in Judah.

In the second section (verses 8-11), we learn that Abner did not perish at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. Now, loyal to the memory and legacy of Saul, he establishes the latter’s remaining son on the northern throne. The author of the Book of Samuel calls him “Ishbosheth,” literally “man of shame,” which seems to be the derisive nickname by which he is known in the south. His real name, according to Chronicles, is “Ishbaal,” “man of the Lord.” Because of the continuing Philistine menace, his capital is set east of the Jordan, at Mahanaim. As events will show, this northern throne depends absolutely on the support of Abner.

In the third section (2:12—3:1), the author uses a memorable episode to illustrate his theme: “there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (3:1). Ishbosheth, in the north, slowly expands his realm, which means that he must have had some unrecorded victories against the Philistines. When his forces move south, they encounter those of David near the city of Gibeah, in the territory of Benjamin, not far north from the still-Canaanite city of Jerusalem.

The leaders of the two forces want to avoid a pitched battle, but they are not adverse to selecting some of their better warriors to engage in individual combat with the other side: “Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the young men now arise and compete before us.’ And Joab said, ‘Let them arise.’” Twelve is the number of warriors chosen from each side, perhaps symbolizing the number of Israelite tribes.

Very quickly, however, things get out of hand, as new combatants enter the fray, and before long “there was a very fierce battle that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.”

Since Abner is likely the best warrior on the field, he becomes a special mark for the bold. And also for the foolish young men who want to make a name for themselves—such as Asahel, David’s nephew. Abner, unable to outrun Asahel, reluctantly slays the youngster, dealing him a backward thrust with the blunt end of his spear. Joab, Asahel’s brother, never forgives Abner, and a few years later he will take revenge.

Tuesday, June 17

2 Samuel 3: There are four components to the present chapter: first, a list of David’s sons born through the years 1000-992; second, an account of Abner’s change of allegiance to David; third, the story of Joab’s murder of Abner; and fourth, the narrative of David’s lament over Abner.

In the list of David’s sons born during the sojourn in Hebron (verses 2-5), the reader identifies the chief figures who will darken the later story of David: Ammon, who will rape his sister; Absalom, who will rebel against David himself; and Adonijah, who will attempt to steal the throne in the closing days of David’s life.

The story of Abner’s defection to the throne of David (verses 6-21) describes how the northern and southern kingdoms become united. As a royal relative and the recognized commander of Israel’s army, Abner’s responsibilities are considerably increased after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. Indeed, the political stability of the northern tribes greatly depends on his personal authority during these troubled years, nor could the house of Saul have stayed in power, up till now, were it not for the backing of Abner.

Following the Battle of Mount Gilboa, the Israelites are divided between north and south, a division rendering it easy for the Philistines effectively to control most of the northern area west of the Jordan. This hapless situation, threatening to become permanent, poses for Abner a true moral dilemma.

He is an instinctively loyal man, principled, and innocent of personal ambition. The sundry loyalties of even such a man, nonetheless, may sometimes stand in conflict, and Abner is compelled in due course to choose between his expected adherence to the house of Saul and his more abiding concern for Israel’s very survival.

Long accustomed to viewing David through the eyes of Saul, Abner experiences much of the same conflict of loyalties that earlier plagued the conscience of Jonathan, and his painful resolution to that conflict, like Jonathan’s, leads directly to the tragedy that ends his life.

The story of Abner’s murder by the hand of Joab (verses 22-30) is tied directly to the previous chapter, where Joab’s brother, Asahel, perished at the hand of Abner. The contrast between Joab and Abner could not be starker. Joab is a simple and savage character, whose actions often gain no credit for the throne of David. Here he murders Abner in cold blood, heedless of the reputation of David, who offered Abner political refuge. Later, he will murder the defenseless Absalom.

In the final account in this chapter (verses 31-39), we find the exasperated David lamenting the murder of Abner but politically unable to execute justice on the murderer. He does, however, go to some length to separate himself from the deed.

Wednesday, June 18

2 Samuel 4: These two military leaders in the north, observing David’s positive response to Abner’s arrival, apparently sense that it’s all over for the house of Saul. Aware—with everybody else, it would seem—that David’s future rule over all Israel is inevitable, they determine to make their move against Ishbosheth and, thus, to secure the good favor of David. Ishbosheth is murdered in his sleep.

They are thoroughly surprised at David’s response. David is disgusted with all the blood recently poured out by actions of Israelite-on-Israelite. First came the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, and two other of Saul’s sons. Then, Asahel picked a fight with Abner and was killed, in spite of Abner’s sincere wish against it. In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Joab treacherously took the life of Abner. Now, here come these two nobodies from the north, proud of themselves for murdering Ishbosheth in his sleep. It is too much for David. The author of the Psalms finds it all revolting.

On two occasions, as we have seen, David refrained from taking the life of Saul, and, on the second of those occasions, Saul himself was asleep. In the mind of honorable David, the murder of a sleeping man is dishonorable beyond contemplation. In the present chapter, then, we are not surprised at his reaction to the murder of Ishbosheth (verses 9-12). Such an atrocity is repugnant to the classical chivalric spirit of the warrior David.

David’s reaction here is of a piece with his response to the murder of Abner in the previous chapter. David, throughout the difficult days during which he was a fugitive in the Judean desert, had placed his trust in the justice of God and had refrained from taking matters into his own hands. The present act of treachery, the murder of Ishbosheth, was exactly what could be expected, David believed, if men placed political and military expediency above moral principle.

Prior to telling this story of the death of Ishbosheth, however, the author pauses to insert a single verse on Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. This quiet insertion, without comment, prepares for the lengthier treatment of this important character in chapter 9. With the death of Ishbosheth, this poor cripple becomes the last heir of Saul’s house. This insertion, then, introduces a point of great historical irony.

Thursday, June 19

2 Samuel 5: The present chapter narrates several events illustrating what David does to consolidate his political and military power. These events are narrated so close together that they appear to happen all at once. Given the Philistine threat from the southwest, this impression may be correct. Things must be done quickly because of that military threat.

This is a very important chapter of political transition. Abner’s adherence to David, followed quickly by the death of Ishbosheth, prepares the way for David’s assumption of authority over all of Israel. Their king and chief military figures all gone, the elders of the northern tribes sue for peace, in order to put the entire realm and region under David’s authority. They explicitly recognize that David is the Lord’s chosen and anointed one; recent events have proved it.

From his capital at Hebron, David has reigned over Judah since the Battle of Gilboah in 1000 BC. The present scene brings us to about 992, some seven and a half years later, when David assumes complete authority over Israel and moves his capital to Jerusalem, a recently captured city. This significant place—because it belongs to no particular tribe of Israelites—is less likely to be subject to tribal rule and tribal rivalries. David’s reign at Jerusalem is to last until 961 (verse 5).

David, having great plans for Jerusalem, establishes diplomatic and commercial relations with the Phoenicians, the people to Israel’s immediate north (verses 11-12). It is the Phoenicians that will provide the sundry materials for the construction of a new city on that site, including the Temple that David’s son will eventually construct. For now, however, David settles for the building of a palace for his growing family.

More sons are born to David at Jerusalem, one of them Solomon, who here (verse 14) makes his first appearance in Holy Scripture.

A chief reason prompting the northern tribes to place themselves under David’s rule, surely, is the need for a common defense against the Philistines, who so soundly defeated Saul’s army at Mount Gilboah. Consequently, dealing with those Philistines, now that he has a larger army, becomes David’s first order of business (verses 17-25). Doubtless these new developments in Israel bring great distress to the Philistines; for the past seven and a half years, after all, they were the beneficiaries of the strife between Israel’s northern and southern tribes. After this encounter among the mulberry trees, they know their political world is not the same.

Friday, June 20

Second Samuel 6: With the intent to transform Jerusalem into Israel’s true—not simply geographical—center, David determines to bring there the Ark of the Covenant. An unexpected incident during this transfer produces one of the most famous scenes in Holy Scripture.

David, as he begins to consolidate his reign, is full of plans. The Ark, the ancient symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites, is a part of those plans. Nothing in the Sacred Text indicates that David reflected adequately on the moral ambiguity involved in this endeavor. Very early in the Book of Samuel was another story of Israelites using the Ark to advance their own agenda. There was a battle with the Philistines, of which we are told:

So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. . . . So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died (First Samuel 4:4, 10-11).

In that episode, near the beginning of the Book of Samuel, the Lord endeavored to teach Israel that He could not be used. Did David understand that?

In the present story, the Lord makes His point once again, when Uzza—quite innocently, it seems—puts forth his hand to steady the Ark on the ox cart. He is struck dead on the spot.

Since he dies in the act, the lesson is not for Uzza. The lesson is for David, and he knows it. David is upset:

And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah. . . David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the ark of the Lord with him into the City of David (verses 8-10)

Just as David is unable to bring the Ark into his own capital on his own terms, he will also not be permitted to build a temple in that capital on his own terms. God has chosen David, to be sure, but God intends to keep David on a shortened leash. Subsequent events will prove God right on the point: David is not, in every respect, worthy of trust. His ambitions will get the better of him in due course, and his sins will introduce tragedy into his history.

Still, he is God’s anointed one, as the next chapter will make clear.